AMD Radeon R9 270X & R7 260X Review
AMD’s R9 280X is meant to target the “gamers’ sweet spot” at $299 but there are two other, highly important cards launching today as well: the R9 270X and R7 260X. They each target a very specific segment but, as with the R9 280X, their primary goal is to up the performance quotient in their respective price categories. With that being said, don’t expect either to provide enthusiasts level framerates at high detail settings; these are mid-range cards with some punch but competing with higher level GPUs isn’t part of their mandate.
At $199, with the R7 270X AMD is aiming for the best possible performance for budget-minded gamers who are using 1080P monitors. To accomplish this, they have equipped it with a core derived from Pitcairn XT (the HD 7870 GHz Edition). Named Curacao, its core layout consists of 1280 stream processors, 32 ROPs and 80 texture units alongside a 256-bit GDDR5 memory interface, mirroring the HD 7870 GHz's layout. On paper, there isn’t anything to distinguish one core from another other than the latter’s newish name. So like the R9 280X, the R7 270X uses a repurposed Graphics Core Next architecture which has been updated to better compete with NVIDIA’s current product stack.
Some may not agree with architectural refreshes but the mid-range market is a perfect proving ground for these initiatives. Not only has AMD been able to hit lower prices through a continuation of core designs but the 28nm manufacturing processes’ relative maturity has allowed for a few clock speed and efficiency optimizations as well. All of those aspects are key points for gamers on a limited budget and NVIDIA followed this same path when creating their GTX 700-series.
Speaking of clock speeds, this is where the R9 270X truly differentiates itself from its HD 7870 GHz predecessor. The core frequency gets an increase of 50MHz while memory goes from 4.8GHz to 5.6GHz which is a substantial boost. In addition, the R7 270X will be available as a 4GB version, though the actual benefit of this additional memory may be minimal when paired up with a mid-range core. Due to various manufacturing process improvements, despite these higher frequencies, the R9 270X should only draw about 5W to 10W more than the HD 7870 GHz Edition.
Prior to the R-series launch AMD quietly reduced the price of their mid-tier offerings so the R9 270X’s $199 price allows it to parachute directly into the gap between the $269 HD 7950 Boost and the $189 HD 7870 GHz. However, AMD’s own board partners may have thrown a small wrench into this equation since the Boost can currently be found for as little as $210 after rebates. That’s just $10 more for what could be a significantly faster graphics card.
Against NVIDIA’s product stack, the R9 270X finds itself in an envious position. With the discontinuation of their GTX 660 Ti, NVIDIA no longer has a part that can compete in this price range since the GTX 660 is now priced at $179 (and never was able to compete against the HD 7870 GHz anyways) after some aggressive price adjustments. Meanwhile the GTX 760 still sits at a much more expensive $249. So, without any direct competition, the R9 270X is well poised as a possible upgrade for anyone still hanging onto an HD 5850, HD 6850 or GTX 460.
The $139 R7 260X is the lowest-priced R-series part we will be reviewing and it is based off of the venerable Bonaire core. However, there’s a bit of a twist in this story: as we theorized in the HD 7790 review, it turns out that Bonaire was the proving ground for many of the technologies incorporated into AMD’s revised GCN architecture. Unlike Tahiti, Pitcairn and Cape Verde, Bonaire represents a slight evolution with an incorporated TrueAudio DSP, making it the only card in AMD’s lineup -other than the R9 290X and R9 290- with native TrueAudio support. There are a few other improvements but those will be kept under wraps until AMD’s flagship parts are fully unveiled sometime later this month.
Using the Bonaire core grants the R7 260X access to 896 stream processors, 16 ROPs and 56 TMUs. However, in a departure from the Cape Verde design, it utilizes a pair Geometry and asynchronous Compute Engines which significantly improves theoretical performance and IPC throughput. The 128-bit memory interface is in-line with similarly priced products and it shouldn’t prove to be too much of a hindrance at 1080P provided detail levels are well managed.
One of Bonaire’s main selling points is the design changes AMD instituted in an effort to optimize power consumption while maximizing clock speeds. Like the Richland APU, it utilizes AMD’s new embedded on-die microcontroller which has the ability to accurately monitor temperatures, voltages and clock speeds along with their relation to ASIC TDP in an effort to ensure optimal performance. These calculations and their respective clock and voltage changes are done at 10ms intervals which is a huge improvement over the previous generation design’s switch rate of 50ms.
In order to make the most out of what this controller brings to the table, AMD has instituted additional P-States within PowerTune. As before, discrete DPM states dictate voltages and clock speeds based upon proximity to power limit but there are now more of them (eight versus four to be exact) so additional granularity can be inserted into the equation. The result is higher sustained engine clocks in all circumstances rather than select cases.
Like the other R-series cards, the R7 260X was created through the judicious application of higher clock speeds to an existing core architecture. In this situation Bonaire’s dials have been turned to the max with a 100MHz core frequency boost and GDDR5 modules that operate at 6.5Gbps on a 128-bit wide bus. Those specifications should help differentiate this new card from the HD 7790 and allow it to compete better against NVIDIA’s alternatives. Unfortunately, this focus on maximizing frequencies has led to a significant increase in board power as the R7 260X requires some 30W more than its predecessor.
With price of $139 there shouldn’t be any doubt as to the R7 260X’s value but the presence of AMD’s HD 7850 2GB at $159 (or less with rebates) will likely cause hesitation in some potential buyers. In the lower end of the midrange market, a few bucks can make a huge difference so it will be interesting to see how these two competing solutions line up against one another.
The real roadblock for AMD’s R7 260X is NVIDIA’s recently announced price reductions. With the GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB now sitting at $149 and the GTX 650 Ti Boost 1GB at $129, AMD may have learned that announcing pricing too soon before launch can act as a double edged sword. Both of these GeForce cards are now well placed from a pricing perspective.
Much like other cards in AMD’s new lineup, the R9 270X and R7 260X will incorporate support for AMD’s new Mantle API / driver combination alongside DX 11.2 and OpenGL 4.3.
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